Culture and Changes

19th Sunday Ordinary time, August 12, 2018

Texts:  Kings 19:4-8; Ps 34:2-9; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51

We continue to read from the Gospel of John, chapter 6.  Two weeks ago, we read the miracle of the loaves and fishes, where Jesus fed a crowd of 5,000 or more people with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.  Everyone ate as much as they wanted, and still there were leftovers.   We also learned that John’s Gospel was primarily written for people who had already accepted Christianity, and John’s goal is to deepen their faith and their understanding of Jesus.

Last week we found Jesus trying to enlarge the crowd’s understanding of “bread” and “work”; he told them to not work for food which perishes, but for food that leads them to eternal life. They ask Jesus for manna, the heavenly bread that God gave the Israelites after they escaped Egypt.  Jesus responded that God gives the true bread from heaven, and they ask for that bread.  Jesus then says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” He talks of becoming close to God, of gaining wisdom and understanding.

We pick up there today, and we begin to notice some changes in the way the story is told. First, we start off with “The Jews” murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”  In our first two readings, the crowd is referred to as “the people” or just “they”.  Suddenly they are referred to as “the Jews”.  That label, in John’s Gospel, indicates unbelievers, especially those hostile to Jesus in Jerusalem. The crowd came looking for free food, and they are disappointed that no magic bread has appeared.  They are critical because Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” Oddly enough, John did not record Jesus saying that exact statement in the previous verses.

There are two pieces of Mediterranean culture you need to know to understand this scene. First, “Honor” was very important, and honor required that a person stay in their family’s social status, maintain it, and never consider “getting ahead.” Unlike our culture, any attempt then to raise your social status or behave differently from your birth status was shameful because it was seen as divisive and disruptive to the community. Second, the way that people were pressured to follow the rules of society was to be sharply criticized and shamed. So the crowd immediately and bluntly reminds Jesus of who his parents are (not from heaven) and what their social status is, in attempt to belittle him and “keep him in his place”. Jesus tells them to stop complaining.

John used the exact same word for their “murmurs” (or complaints) as is used for the complaints of the Israelites in Exodus (the people who received the manna from God). Those people were portrayed as shallow people who had just been divinely rescued from hard labor and slavery and were not only ungrateful but outrageously rude to and demanding of God. The crowd who, a few verses ago, had difficulty grasping the symbolism of bread now sounds like Rabbis arguing about scripture. Now they use the formal “How can he say” format that was traditional when debating a meaning of the scriptures.

The crowd is behaving just as the label “The Jews” would indicate, with hostility. So Jesus offers the crowd an alternative to hostility. He says, “No one can come to me unless the Father…draws him…” Draw means to “bring near”. In this case, it means to bring someone near to Scripture, and open to them the knowledge of God. For John, when we listen and learn from God, we become close with/ near to Jesus. Jesus quotes a verse from Isaiah 54:13, that in the New Jerusalem, in the last days, “(the people) shall be taught (directly) by God”, a very personal relationship indeed.

It seems that someone different wrote this part of our reading, maybe a later editor added something or changed it. Biblical studies can be complicated by such events. We don’t have the originals of any of the Gospels, only copies that have been made by scribes whose tedious jobs were to copy them by hand, and the copies do not always agree. We do not know for sure who the original writers were, and who may have changed or added information, and Bible experts do not always agree even to what the author meant.

This is a good place to look at our other readings. In 1st Kings, we see the angel of God bring bread to Elijah, who was in deep despair and exhausted. It was a way to heal and restore Elijah to health and wholeness; it shows great care and gentleness. Likewise, the 2nd reading urges us to be kind, compassionate, and forgiving. Bitterness, anger, shouting, abusive language, and intent to harm or injure others has no place in our lives and grieves the Holy Spirit. We are to imitate God, living in love as Christ loved us. The Psalm urges us to “taste and see” how good God is. All 3 readings speak of God’s love and goodness.

So today we had new and different language (“The Jews” instead of ‘the crowd);  we have the mood of the crowd change, as they belittle Jesus. Last week, I said, “The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves opened the door for people to have an insight into who Jesus was and how he will “feed” our souls for eternity. Now, we have a new image for the bread, a more traditional Eucharistic image of the bread as the body of Christ. Now Jesus says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, they will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” This is the introduction of another way of viewing bread, one that speaks strongly of the Eucharist rather than just manna/bread and learning wisdom and coming to understand God. And that is where we will pick up next week!  Join me then!

Advertisements

4 gifts from John the Baptist

Feast of St. John the Baptist 6-24-18

This is the last Sunday in our old location.  Next Sunday, we will have Mass at 11:30 at St. Timothy Episcopal Church, 432 Van Buren St., Herndon, VA 20170

Isaiah 49:1-6; Palm139: 1-3,13-15; Acts 13:22-26; Luke 1:57-66,80

 

Today I would like to look at 4 aspects from John the Baptist’s life which should be familiar and which are relevant to us as we leave this space and face new beginnings for Holy Trinity.

#1 Luke  1: 39-44 (John leaps for joy when The Blessed Virgin met her cousin Elizabeth)

“Elizabeth exclaimed to Mary, ‘Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! For…when (your) voice…came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy.’”

John is a reminder to us that having Jesus in our lives is a great and wonderful gift – so great that the yet unborn John leaped for joy. When is the last time you felt the urge to leap for joy?  When were you last so filled with the Holy Spirit that you were moved to act out your faith in a new way?

John was the one who bridged the old and the new periods in human history – before and after Christ. John is the icon of new beginnings.  Holy Trinity is in a wonderful God-given period of new beginnings.  Let us feel the joy of a fresh start, a new chance to grow in love of the scriptures, and love of our neighbors.  Let us grow in the ability to share our faith.  Let us become people that are recognized as Christians because of our love.  May God bless us with the ability to grasp new ways to be church, in leadership, in outreach, and in worship. May we find joy in creativity and change as we are moved by the Holy Spirit.

#2 Acts 13: 22-26  (John’s humility, self knowledge & recognition of who Jesus was)

“One is coming after me; I am not worth to unfasten the sandals of his feet.”

I find John’s confession that he was not worthy to kneel down and untie Jesus’ sandal one of the great realizations of human history. Do you realize the implications?  If we understand what John said, it would be impossible to pollute or waste our natural resources because of the profound respect we would have for God and God’s creation.  There would never be wars, for we would obey God’s word – we would not kill or covet or steal; for wars are really fought over wealth and land and resources.

What if we admit our vulnerability and dependency on each other? Then we would know how necessary our neighbor is to us, and really value children, immigrants, and the elderly.

What if we knew Jesus when he came to us sick or hungry or a victim of violence? I can hardly image the change in our society if we knew ourselves and Jesus.  Humility, self-knowledge and recognition of Jesus are the keys to being true church where no one is greater than the other.  Everyone who comes in our door is seeking God at some level.  Our attention must always focus on the Divine in each person.  Outward focus on others can make our problems fade in importance.  Focusing inward, on ourselves, make us a barrier to God’s love.

#3 John 1: 35-42 John directs his disciples to follow Jesus

“(The day after John baptized Jesus) John was standing with 2 of his disciples, and as he looked, Jesus walked by; he said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples, Andrew and John the son of Zebedee, heard him…and they followed Jesus.”

John was an extraordinary man. He was not owned by his possessions or his prestige.  When Andrew followed Jesus, he also brought his brother, Simon Peter.  So John deliberately sent his followers to Jesus.  John was not concerned about counting his followers.  He was concerned with freeing people from their sins, with baptism as the symbol of their forgiveness and fresh start on life.  He knew his job was not the main event, but rather he was a messenger, to prepare the way of the Lord.  He taught that we are to “bear fruit that befits repentance.”  John reminds me of the old Methodist preacher who told me, “I’m not in administration, I’m just in sales.”  John knew that he was just bringing the faith to people, and was not in charge.

Most churches need fewer people who think they are in charge and many more that are out in the trenches of life, knowledgeable about their faith, focusing on love and the Good News of Jesus. We need to act like Christians!  John was working for God, and everything he said and did was for the glory of God, and not his own glory. The Holy Spirit is not bound by rite or ritual or human doctrine, and the church is not ours, nor is the space nor the possessions, nor the people, nor the future. It all belongs to God.

#4 Matthew 11:2-19  When John was imprisoned by King Herod & sent his disciples to Jesus

“John sent word by his disciples (to ask Jesus) ‘Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?’”

John was in prison for nothing more than telling King Herod that he should not have married his brother’s wife – he confronted immorality of the kind that tears the fabric of society. The letter that Bishop Ron has issued about asylum seekers coming into the US over the Mexican border is a present day example of how the Church must confront injustice and evil. John is our model for speaking out when leaders overstep their authority and damage the church or nation.  For that, John died a martyr’s death.

Consider that John, the last prophet of the old age and Jesus, the one who began the new age, both preached repentance and God’s love, and both died fulfilling their rightful place in God’s Kingdom.   John knew that Herod murdering people on a whim, and John had every reason to be fearful.  He had put his faith in Jesus, witnessed to his divinity, and, in a moment of despair, he needed reassurance that he had chosen well.  He had not lost his faith, but had serious questions, and he turned to Jesus for answers.

How do we respond when life is hard, when we are fearful and losing hope? Let us be a church where people can express doubt and fear.  Let us be a place where people are never silenced, but where people can express themselves and their opinions; a place where we can learn together and support each other, where we take care to listen before speaking and when we speak, we tell the truth.

John the Baptist has a great deal to teach us. John would be a good patron saint for this time of transition.  The real questions that face us are not Mass times or attendance.  John gives us the real questions: “How do we bring the message of love and forgiveness to our neighbors so that we all experience the joy of knowing Jesus?”  “How do we know ourselves so that we bring God’s Word to others with the gentle humility that comes from knowing God?”  “Have we identified what is really important instead of being stuck in the past or pretending ownership of that which belongs to God?” Finally, “Can we grow past fear and doubt by learning from and supporting each other with the truth Jesus gave us?”  I believe we can do these things, and we must, to fulfill the role we have in God’s kingdom.

Looking for Joy

4th Sun Lent 3-11-18

2 Chronicles 36:14-16; 19-23 Ps: 137:1- 6; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21

 

I struggled for days with this ….I wrote at least 3 different homilies…all of which ended in the recycle bin. Be glad!  Then I had an altogether brilliant idea.

Actually, it wasn’t the idea that was so brilliant. It was the color of these vestments that was brilliant.  Whew!  Rose with a glow! What is the point of this rose?  This happens twice a year, once during Advent and once during Lent.  It is the half way mark in those liturgical seasons.  It is when the mood lightens at little.  It is Joy breaking through the somber tone of the waiting in Advent, breaking through the examination of our lives and our faith in Lent.  But why joy??   The “why” of the joy never sticks in my brain quite as well as “the what”.

So we look for joy in the readings. The first reading is about how the people of Judah lost their faith and ended up captives in Babylon.  Nothing so joyful there (but they do finally return home).  The Psalm is a lament, a song of loss and regret, grieving for the city of Jerusalem, which has been destroyed. No joy there.

Ah, but we have the 2nd reading, from St. Paul, who was writing the Good News of the Resurrection to people in the city of Ephesus.  They were hearing this for the first time!  Perhaps, just perhaps, we could put ourselves in that frame of mind, and see if we can find the joy there that seems to elude us.

So, what does Paul say? First thing is that God is rich in mercy.  Mercy, as we talked about 2 weeks ago, is when God does not give us what we deserve.  We sin, we fail, we do what we know we shouldn’t do, we don’t do what we know we should do, and still God is not ready to pounce on us with punishment.  Why not?  Because, Paul writes, God has “great love” for us.  Everyone benefits from that great love.  Being loved is what the human spirit needs more than any material thing.  In fact, God loves us – greatly – even as we are in the middle of the worse moment of our lives, when we are behaving really badly.

Paul says that at that moment, when we had our backs turned on God, God saved us. God rescued us from ourselves and raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus, so very much more than we might dare to expect or even hope for.  Paul calls this “grace”.  Grace is when God gives us what we do not deserve.  God’s plan is to show us the immeasurable riches of grace.

Now, that is amazing…and pretty joyful the more you think about it. I know of no one who finds a child or employee or student who are behaving at their very worst, knowingly being disobedient or disrespectful, and then takes them off to a place filled with joy and showers them with love.  The joy-filled riches of grace are beyond counting, but they are not locked up in a bank, and never tarnish or lose their value.

If fact, God is ready to give us what no human really deserves, and that is to be with God for ever, face to face in real, pure love and joy. Paul makes it clear; we are saved by grace from punishment.  We cannot earn enough bonus points on our credit cards to get a trip to eternity with God.  Paul says it two different ways to make sure we get it: first, “By grace you have been saved through faith,” and second, “It is the gift of God; it is not from our actions or behavior, therefore no one may boast” (no one is better than the others).

Faith without good deeds, of course, is dead, as James wrote in his short letter (read it sometime). Faith is only real and alive in our lives when we are doing the good things that we were created to do.   Paul wrote that God created us for the good works that already are waiting for us to do; we should find meaning and discover our very lives in doing good things.  Grace seems to bring about this desire to act out in love.

People want joy, but they look in all the wrong places. Paul tells us the right place to look.  We find joy when we believe God.  Some people confuse joy with happiness or good circumstances.  But, joy is a gift from God, and not dependent on where you live or beauty or strength or even good health.  Joy is the result of accepting the “great love” of God. We wrap God’s love around us, we feel it, we deeply breath it in, we cling to it when we have nothing else.

Our Gospel reading backs Paul up. It also says that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn or punish us, but that we might be saved through him; and whoever lives in God’s love and joy comes to the light that their good works may be clearly seen as done through God.

So we continue on toward Easter. Ahead is the difficult half of Lent – facing the cruelty and selfishness that sometimes enters the human soul.  We have to admit how low our price is for betrayal, how quickly we let fear overcome us, how we use others for a small moment of gain.  But joy is an act of rebellion against the darkness, and so, for today, we focus on the joy of the triumph of the cross, and the power of love to overcome even death.

Luke 1: 46-55 – Mary’s Song of Praise/ The Canticle of Mary/ The Magnificat

3rd Sunday of Advent – December 17, 2017

46 And Mary said, ‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord                                         47  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,                                                                             48 for he has looked upon his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed;                                                                                                                                                  49  the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.                                 50 He has  mercy on those who fear him in every generation.                                                      51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.                                                                                                                                     52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;        53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.      54 He has come to the help of his servant Israel,                                                                             55 for he has remembered his promise of mercy to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

This week we have a special reading as the Psalm. Much of it, in fact, comes from the Psalms.  Some say that the Magnificat could not have been spoken by a young Jewish woman in the first century. Sometimes our pride in our literacy hides treasures from our eyes.  I suggest we set aside our judgment, born of our own moment in time.  We must view the Magnificat from a time when many, if not most, people routinely learned long quotations from Scripture in the absence of being able to read. Having memorized it, they meditated on it, turning it over and over in their minds; it became part of who they were and how they lived. We, on the other hand, tend to read but not remember; we hear but do not listen.  We say the words but our understanding does not grow.

Just for a few moments, immerse yourself in this incredible poetic outcry that most certainly was formed with the help of the Holy Spirit. I want to show you where the Magnificat verses came from and the enormous power that is embedded in them.

The Magnificat is a blend of multiple references from the Old Testament Scriptures listed below and many others. It was profoundly different from the social order of the day and could have been considered to be anarchy or treason against the government.  It was, at that time, considered to be what we might call extremely “leftist”, or “socialist”.  It seems to advocate for the upheaval of government, and threatens those in power.  It portrays God as being on the side of the poor, the hungry and the helpless – those called “a burden on society”.  God will take from those filled with greed and self-worship and give to those clinging to faith.  There is a message that class structure- however disguised or justified-will be reversed. It is, in a word, revolutionary in the classic sense. Above all it underlines that God will fulfill the promises we find in the Scriptures.

It has been described as a song of thanksgiving for the immense graces given in salvation; a song of the poor whose hope is met only as God fulfills those promises. But we cannot ignore that it reminds us that salvation will bring a world with structure very unlike past or present governments and, too often, even the church.   Consider that Luke put these powerful verses in the mouth of a very amazing woman of great faith and purity of heart who is frequently portrayed as “meek and mild”!

 

Verse 46– Psalm 35, 9: “Then I will rejoice in the Lord, exult in God’s Salvation.”      Isaiah 61, 10: “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul; for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation, and wrapped me in a mantle of justice.”

Verse 47 – Psalm 34, 1-3: “I will bless the Lord at all times… My soul shall make its boast in the Lord; the humble shall hear it and rejoice… let us exalt His name together.”

Verse 48 – 1 Samuel 1, 11: “O Lord of hosts, if you look with pity on the misery of your servant, if you remember me and do not forget me…” Psalm 113, 7: “The Lord raises the needy from the dust, lifts the poor from the ash heap…” Psalm 138, 6: “For though the Lord is exalted, yet he regards the lowly; but the haughty he knows from afar.”

Verse 49 – Psalm 71, 19: “…that I may proclaim your might to all generations yet to come, your power and justice, God, to the highest heaven. You have done great things…”  Psalm 111, 9: “You have sent deliverance to your people…and awesome is your name.”  Psalm 126, 2-3: “It was said, ‘The Lord has done great things for them’.”

Verse 50 – Psalm 103, 13 &17: “…so the Lord has compassion on the faithful. But the Lord’s kindness is forever, toward the faithful from age to age.”

Verse 51 – Psalm 118, 15: “The Lord’s right hand strikes with power; the Lord’s right hand is raised…” Jeremiah 32, 17: “Ah, Lord God, you have made heaven and earth by your great might, with your outstretched arm; nothing is impossible to you.”  Isaiah 40, 10:  “Behold, the Lord God will come with might, with his arm ruling for him.”

Verse 52 – Isaiah 2, 11 &12: “The haughty eyes of man will be lowered, the arrogance of men will be abased, and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day. For the Lord of hosts will have his day against all that is proud and arrogant… and it will be brought low.” 2 Samuel 22, 28: “You save lowly people, though on the lofty your eyes look down.”  Job 5, 11: “He sets up on high the lowly…”  Job 12, 18 & 19: “He loosens the bonds imposed by kings, and binds a waistcloth on their loins (like a slave).  He leads counselors (priests) away barefoot and overthrows the mighty.”  Psalm 147, 6: “The Lord sustains the poor, but casts the wicked to the ground.” Sirach 10, 14: “God overturns the thrones of the arrogant and establishes the lowly in their place.”

Verse 53 – 1 Samuel 2:4 & 5: “The bows of the mighty are broken, while the tottering gird on strength. The well-fed hire themselves out for bread, while the hungry thrive on spoil.” Psalm 107, 9: “For he satisfied the thirsty, filled the hungry with good things.”

Verse 54 – Psalm 98, 3: “The Lord has remembered faithful love toward the house of Israel.”  Isaiah 41, 8-10: “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, offspring of Abraham my friend – You… whom I have chosen and will not cast off – fear not, I am with you…”

Verse 55 –Psalm 105, 8-9: God is mindful of his covenant for ever, the covenant which he made with Abraham, his sworn promise to Isaac… Micah 7, 20:  “You will show faithfulness to Jacob, and grace to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from days of old.”

Be Prepared

32nd Sun Ordinary time, 11-12-17 Wisdom 6:12-16; Psalm: 63:2-8; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18;  Matthew 25:1-13

 

Once again our Lectionary is playing a trick on us. What does it do?  Well, it leaves out the first word of our Gospel!  What is that word?  The word is, “Then”.  Why does it matter? For two reasons: first, it lets us know that this part of Matthew’s Gospel is a series of teachings and parables about the end times.  This parable is not free-standing and disconnected.   Second, it tells us that Jesus is teaching about things in the future.  In fact, all of verse one is important.  Jesus says, “Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to (or “will be like”) ten maidens who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.”  This lets us know we need to read it like a parable, which is a lesson which uses a story to explain some important point.  The story isn’t the point, and the characters and setting aren’t the point – but the story is a way to make a point.  The kingdom of heaven is “like” the whole story, not just parts of it or people in it.

One of the common problems with this parable is that people get hung up on the unimportant setting of the story. We don’t know a lot about the historical wedding traditions of Jesus’ day, and what we do know indicates that many areas had a variety of traditions.*  Where the bridegroom was coming from or going to is not part of the story.   This is not about the church, or the maidens, or lamp oil.  When we focus on these things, we miss the point of the story.  Let’s talk instead about what the parable teaches.

This is a parable that was in part clarified by the Dead Sea Scrolls, found only some 50 or so years ago (the writings of the Christian community at Qumran). The document 4Q434a* describes messianic times when evil ends, the earth is filled with God’s glory, and sins are reconciled.  “(The Messiah) will console them in Jerusalem…like a bridegroom with his bride he will live for ever…his throne is for ever and ever…”   This fits with Matt 9:15 (Cana wedding), Mark 2:19-20 (When the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples do not fast), and Luke 5: 34-35 (also in response to questions about fasting); these are all scriptures where Jesus used the term “bridegroom” for himself.  So, the coming of the “bridegroom” in our Gospel refers to the second coming of Jesus.*

Matthew also uses the idea of “I do not know you” in Matthew 7:23 when Jesus tells his followers, “No every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” In other words, those who do not do God’s will be told, “I never knew you; depart from me.” Scholars suggest that this was a common expression of the day for a teacher whose followers failed to follow through with what they had been taught*.  This expression reminds us that there will be a final judgment – those who have done the will of God will be separated from those who chose their own beliefs and agenda.  There are consequences for filling our days with goals that do not match God’s will, and leaving love and wisdom until “later.”

This parable was told to Jesus’ followers. But it also was a warning for all who heard him, Jew, Pharisee, or Gentile, us, then or now – to be prepared for Jesus’ return.  The surrounding teachings in Matthew chapters 24 and 25 all stress the need for being ready for the end times – whether it should come earlier than expected or later than expected.

Indeed, the parable just before our reading is the parable about the servant who is drunk and abusive to the other servants because the master is away, and is not expected for some time. The master arrives sooner than expected and the servant is punished and thrown out.  The servant was not ready.  Now we read about women who are not ready when the bridegroom was delayed.   In this instance, the parable is based on this delay.  The delay* is the factor which reveals which women were prepared and which were not.

Some people have suggested that Matthew conceived this parable to assure Christians who feared that Jesus would not return.  But there is no evidence of that here. Rather, we are reading about wisdom and foolishness in regard to being prepared.  Jesus uses “Wisdom” and “readiness” as synonyms.*  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all emphasized Jesus’ statement, “heaven and earth will pass away…but of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, not the Son, but the Father alone… therefore, be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming.”

So, we are to be alert. We are not to sit on the sidelines, with a ready supply of beer and pretzels, and watch life go past us.  Our call to readiness and preparedness is to faithfully fulfill our Christian calling.  When we care for our neighbors, near and far, we actively display our faith for all to see. We are like lights in the darkness of selfishness and greed.  We display love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  (Galatians 5:22) In one of the great paradoxes of life, we find that by choosing a path which may appear difficult and burdensome, we find joy and peace.

We proclaim victory over death. We pray God’s Kingdom will come.  We work so evil will come to an end.  This is a way to live – each day and in every circumstance, a frame for how we approach life; the basis for every decision we make.  Wisdom, Solomon wrote, “is readily perceived by those who love her, and found by those who seek her.  (Wisdom) hastens to make herself known, anticipating (our need for her)”; Wisdom will not disappoint us.  And Jesus, upon his return, will find us ready.

 

*From Klyne R. Snodgrass’ book, “Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the parables of Jesus.” William B. Eerdmans Publisher, 2008, Pages 509-518.

Unity in Community

26th Sunday Ordinary Time 10-1-17

Ezekiel 18:25-28; Psalm: 25:4-9;  Philippians 2:1-11 (a must read before you continue);  Matthew 21:28-32

 

We usually focus on the Gospel reading, but last Sunday we started a 4-week reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi.  This is one of his more straightforward letters, with fewer complex sentences and less dense theology. Indeed, this is a beautiful passage.   In fact, this is one of his letters written from jail.  It’s probably fair to say that when people are confined, contrary to their own wishes, without knowing what the future will bring, they become introspective, and begin the process of identifying their real priorities and deeply held beliefs.  Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote “Letters from Birmingham Jail”, and Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote letters and poems, both of which are good examples of this.

 

Paul is writing to encourage the Philippians. There are some growing divisions in their community.  Some outside people have come to them in attempt to weaken the message of God’s love and move them toward harsh legalism and bondage to law instead.  It is a time when they need to remain strong in their faith, and not be intimidated by opponents. Paul stresses the themes of Joy (in prayer, in work, in the Gospel, and in suffering).  He also stresses fellowship with each other (unmarred by selfishness or pride), and in the Good News of Christ.

 

So he begins by a series of rhetorical questions, reminding the Philippians of the privileges and duties of a Christian, of the life they are to live as Christians, and the strength they have found in the life of Christ and in their own lives as a Christian community.

  1. Did you find encouragement in Christ himself?
  2. Have you found comfort in the blessings of love and given that love to others without reserve or discrimination?
  3. Have you come together in One Spirit, the Holy Spirit, and found a unity unlike any other?
  4. What has it been like to experience the tenderness and compassion of God and has it made you reach out to others with deep-seated and sincere affection and sympathy?
  5. Can you fill me with joy to hear of your harmony and loving cooperation?

 

Then he offers advice to keep them strong and on the right track.

  1. Selfishness, inflated egos, personal ambition, and pride destroy unity.
  2. Regard others as more important than yourself; look for those strengths and gifts that other people have and be aware of your own weaknesses, failures and limitations.
  3. Make a habit of thinking and speaking of the needs and interests of others as well as your own. Your thoughts and attitudes are the basis of your speech and action.

 

So where do these virtues come from? Who modeled them for us?  Christ, of course!  But it goes deeper than that.  Christ established a pattern of humiliation – glorification.  What I mean is, Christ’s humiliation began before his birth, as he chose to come to earth not as an all-powerful, all-knowing God, that people would fall on their knees in front of him, but as a vulnerable human child of poor parents, threatened by King Herod, forced to flee for his very life, and destined to grow and mature slowly, doing manual labor.  Then he was a wandering preacher, outside of the centers of power and prestige, with no home, sometimes hungry and often misunderstood.  He endured the press and demands of the crowds, the neediness of the sick, and abuse and a death sentence by religious and political leaders.  Finally, he suffered the stigma of torture and death as a criminal.  Yet he was raised from the dead and ascended into the Glory of eternal life. That is a pattern which is nearly too much for us to imagine, much less imitate.  Yet as we become one with Christ and God in the unity of the Holy Spirit, it is the pattern with which Christians are brought into community and communion by their incorporation into Christ and their life in him.  The in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit can enable us and give us strength to do what is right, if we desire to listen and be changed.

 

St. Paul is inescapably direct when he says: In the name of the encouragement you owe me in Christ, in the name of the solace that love can give, of fellowship in spirit, compassion, and pity, I beg you, make my joy complete by your unanimity, possessing the one love, united in spirit and ideals. Never act out of rivalries or conceit; rather, be humble – think of others as superior to yourselves, each of you looking to others’ interests rather than your own. Your attitude must be Christ’s attitude.

 

But that is the very attitude we resist. We live on rivalry, we cherish our conceit. Our rarest concern is the other’s good—unless it is hard won through demanding relationships of covenant and trust. Yet, I do not think Paul is talking against honest dialogue, where differences are discussed and reconciled to the good of all.  Paul would not be one who would demand rigid allegiance to a human law or regulation or tradition.  Remember, he was formerly a Pharisee and spend his early life studying the Jewish laws.  That study would have included many debates and heartfelt differences of opinion.   In fact, I think he would expect broad participation in community decision making, including prayer and thoughtful study of scripture and empathy with human needs and human errors.  But he would be opposed to contentious and rowdy yelling matches, where parties demand their own way for the sake of pride.

 

So Paul offers us this hymn to give us a way to internalize this lesson. It is likely the most quoted and memorized portion of this letter, with short rhythmic lines in two parts.  In the first three verses (6-8), Christ is the subject of every verb.  In the last three verses (9-11), God is the subject of every verb.   Paul has added “even death on a cross”, which breaks the rhythm to add emphasis for the completeness of Christ’s humiliation and also added “to the glory of God the Father” to add to the fullness of Christ’s glory.  Notice that the name “Lord” reveals the true nature of Jesus, and the phrase “Jesus Christ is Lord” is an early Christian acclamation, identifying the divinity of Christ.  Finally, every knee shall bend in homage to Christ and everyone shall recognize him as Divine on all levels, “those in heaven, and on earth and under the earth.”

 

Paul adds his own summary in the verses immediately following, which are not part of our missal reading. He says, “So then, my beloved,…work out your salvation with fear and trembling.  For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work… hold onto to the word of life, so that my boast for the day of Christ may be that I did not… labor in vain.”   Let us, too, be in Christ, and so that we will not labor in vain.

 

Justice and Jealousy

25th Sunday Ordinary time, 9-24-17: Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm: 144: 2-3, 8-9, 17-18; Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a; Matthew 20:1-16a

Justice and Jealousy

Our Lectionary has been playing tricks on us. Last week we read from Chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel, and now today we have leaped ahead to Chapter 20. Unfortunately, the part we skipped explains why Jesus tells us today’s parable!

But we have some clues. The first reading from Isaiah says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”  Likewise the Psalm says, “The Lord is gracious and merciful… the Lord is good to all and compassionate toward all his works.  The Lord is just in all his ways and holy in all his works.” Also in our Gospel, Jesus begins by saying, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…”  Most of the “kingdom” parables use ordinary events and ordinary people to show us that God’s kingdom is NOT ordinary!

So let’s leap back to chapter 19 and find the disciples trying to keep children away from Jesus, but he declares, “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Such as who?  The humble, the powerless, the ones with no “purchasing power”.  Then the rich young man comes and asks Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. He is told to give away his riches and come with Jesus.  Then there is the infamous Camel and the eye of the needle teaching.  Jesus says it is hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God; but for God, all things are possible.  Many people have struggled with that one!  But doesn’t God offer grace and mercy to ALL people?

Next, Peter asks what reward the apostles will receive for leaving everything and following Jesus. Then Jesus tells this parable of “The Workers in the Vineyard.”  Afterwards, John and James’ mother asks for her sons to be seated at Jesus’ right and left in the kingdom. (She was apparently too busy preparing her request to listen to the parable.)  This results in Jesus teaching about the reversal of kingdom values; those who follow Jesus are to be servants.  The underlying message this entire section of Matthew’s Gospel is that kingdom values are the opposite of this world’s values.  More specifically, the parable is directed against envy, greed, boasting, or any kind of ranking among Jesus’ followers.   Said another way, the last sentence of the reading – the first shall be last and the last shall be first – indicates that human perceptions on ranking are without meaning and will be turned upside down in the kingdom.

On to the parable! Our parable has 4 parts. First, the landowner goes out five times and hires workers.  Second, the landowner pays the workers.  Third, we hear the complaint of unjust wages.  Fourth, we hear the defense of goodness (someone is confused if we must defend goodness). God is the landowner; the workers are the disciples – and all of us. Most humans have at least occasional bouts of bad attitude, envy, desire for special treatment and rewards, which mark them as “above the crowd”.

The apostles, for example, are put out to give mere children access to Jesus, when their unrestricted access to the Famous Teacher marks them as unique. The rich young ruler is unwilling to give up his wealth, which marks him as a person of status and privilege.  Peter wants to make sure that there will be compensation for leaving the comforts of home and his life as a seafood entrepreneur.  Finally, John and James’ mother probably had high hopes for her offspring, and needed to ensure this gig with a wandering rabbi would lead to the rank that was due to such outstanding sons.  Surely God would recognize their superiority!  (She should meet my grandkids.) Someplace here we each find the reasons we buy lottery tickets, enter Publisher’s Clearinghouse contest, and do all the crazy other things we do to “get ahead (of others).”  But while this parable is about the goodness of God, it is not contrasting works and grace, or achievement levels, and is not about God’s extreme generosity.  All the workers receive the usual daily wage, although some worked longer.  But the wage is “the usual”, it is not generous – barely enough for food for the day – and the landowner is, if anything, charitable rather than generous, just trying to see that all have something to eat.

The parable does show that God’s treatment /judgment of people isn’t based on human rankings or human standards of justice. What causes the workers hired first to complain is the comparison of their hourly wages with that of the later hires.  In their eyes, justice is that which gives no one else an advantage; they define justice from a self-centered point of view. Do we define injustice as what happens to our disadvantage, and what is right as what happens to our advantage?  The first hired workers complain, of course, because they are jealous.  Jesus told the rich young ruler, “If you wish to be perfect… sell what you have and give to the poor, then you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.”  Is giving to the poor one sign of God’s goodness?

For Jesus, to talk about reward is a way to talk about what pleases God and assure us that following Christ is not fruitless. Clearly, this parable is not theology about reward. In contrast, the disciples were into calculating reward and seeking privilege.  The workers who were hired first thought they would receive more….in comparison to others.  The parable breaks through our ideas of reward and perceptions of what is “right”.  Besides, this parable is not about human effort and salvation.  Rather, just as no one should begrudge a good man who gives to the poor, so no one should begrudge God’s goodness and mercy as if God’s rewards were limited to strict calculation.  Envy and displeasure at someone else’s success is contrary to the kingdom.  Jealousy and all thoughts of ranking or privilege must be jettisoned.

“Justice is enormously important…but it should be redefined…too often we dress up as justice what is in reality jealousy, or use justice as a weapon to limit generosity. It certainly is not to be defined by self-centered interests, but requires positive action seeking the good for all persons, especially the needy.  True justice… seeks mercy and ways to express love.  If the parable is about the goodness of God, then it asks that we give up envy and calculation of reward and, rather, both embrace and imitate God’s goodness.  That means that we give up the quest to be first, knowing that God’s standards are different, that what appears to be first will be last.”*

Stories with Intent, A comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, by Klyne R. Snodgrass, 2008, Eerdmans Publishing Company, pgs 378-379.  This quote and many of the ideas found here are from this excellent book.